But look what happens now—and I’m talking to the people listening)—if you just soften your belly! (Sighs) So much holding. I mean, we hold all day long. No wonder we’re so exhausted at the end of the day! Just let your belly go now. You may not even know what that means. It just shows how habituated we have become to our suffering. Just let go. Let go! It’s so painful!" --Stephen Levine*
So when you read the above quote, did you notice that your belly was tight? Did you notice that there actually was room to relax it, to soften it? If so, you're not alone. This is my constant practice throughout the day--"Oh crap, I'm totally clenched", or "Oh, there it is again; I'm gripping". You would think I'd have better abs by now.
I am currently in the process of several healing modalities: physical therapy, acupuncture, and somatic experiencing. I am undergoing the physical therapy and acupuncture primarily due to chronic back pain and pelvic floor dysfunction. At a first glance, these problems are due to my years of dancing or to state it more accurately, to my negligence in properly cross-training to support my spine.
However, something that has been really eye-opening has been the level of insight I have gained from my meditation practice combined with the somatic experiencing (SE). To give you a very, very brief explanation, the SE has shown me to identify how I hold the stress of past memories and events in my body as tension and stiffness. I have also noticed how I will hold that same kind of tension at any given point in the day, as if I am wearing armor against whatever stress I feel is attacking me.
And thus we come back to the belly. I have begun to notice that I'm constantly gripping my abdominal muscles. I'm constantly bracing for or against something. I'm constantly ready to pounce at a moment's notice. This is not a good way to live. Not only is the tension an embodiment of the gripping I am doing throughout the day, I am now a walking example of the pain and dysfunction this can cause.
Now here I should add a quick note for my dancer friends. Obviously, we are trained to hold our abs in to support our posture. This is still important. What I have learned however is that once you're done dancing or working out, you need to release. This is something that I was unconsciously not doing. I never fully released and now I'm suffering the consequences (I'll be writing a future post detailing some specifics).
So now I scan my body. Is my belly tight? Are my shoulders by my ears? Is my jaw clenched? If the answer is yes, I immediately take a deep breath, then I exhale and release. That simple gesture has been amazing. It has certainly helped with my healing. If I wasn't breathing and releasing, I don't think I would be making any advancement in my physical therapy. In fact, a lot of what my physical therapist makes me do is breath work.
One great technique is Soft Belly Meditation. Here is a You Tube link to a guided Soft Belly Meditation based on the instructions found in Stephen Levine's book, A Year to Live. I hope you find this technique useful in alleviating your stress and/or pain.
Let me know what you thought. Do you notice yourself clenching unnecessarily? What do you do to relax?
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* This quote is from an excellent interview of Stephen Levine by Tami Simon of Sounds True: http://www.soundstrue.com/store/weeklywisdom/?page=single&category=IATE&episode=2376